Immigration, education and prosperity: building on the London success story
Yesterday’s Financial Times leader reflects on its own research, which finds that “pupils in London’s poorest neighbourhoods are outperforming average students in the regions”:
Much is still unknown about why London is doing so well. But some credit can be given to the initiative known as London Challenge, regrettably scrapped by the coalition in 2010. This helped to create an ecosystem of experts and schools to identify weaknesses and share best practice. Ofsted, the schools regulator, has praised its impact on student performance.
Government policy has since focused on expanding academies, which are free from local authority control. But autonomy alone is not the answer. The world’s best school systems have high levels of autonomy. So do some of the worst. The experience of London Challenge and successful academies shows that collaboration between high and underperforming schools and informal benchmarking are as important.
Successive governments have tried and failed to address the blight of underperformance in areas such as Doncaster or Yarmouth. There are many contributing factors, such as a lack of expectations fuelled by a dearth of job opportunities. But it is urgent that the lessons of London’s success be translated to these regions.
Policy makers should test a new initiative in some underperforming cities. Local commissioners could be appointed to co-ordinate education experts, teachers and business. This group could help to identify weaknesses and foster collaboration between schools to spread best practice. This cannot be a short-term experiment. Previous attempts to replicate London’s success were abandoned too soon. Improving schools is a five to 10-year task, which means there has to be cross-party consensus on how to deal with these educational deserts. The future of Britain’s children depends on it.
The disjuncture between analysis and conclusion here is stark: we simply don’t know what the main influence on educational achievement in London is – broadly, whether it’s changing to the education, or changes amongst the cohorts being educated – but the recommendation for action focuses on what to do about schools.
Indeed, the conclusion seems to contradict other recent analysis by Chris Cook, the FT’s excellent education correspondent and data geek hero. Chris finds that only in a very few schools do poorer children (those eligible for Free School Meals) achieve better than the national average. That is, in the country as a whole, the quality of the school generally matters a great deal less to a child’s educational achievement than does that family income of that child. Moreover, in another benchmarking exercise, he finds that ”two-thirds of the variation in children’s exam results can be explained without any reference to the quality of the school at all.”
So why is it different in London? Are the schools really so much better that they are able to counteract the influence of poverty in ways that so few schools elsewhere are able to?
The answer is a ”yes, probably”. It does look as though the London Challenge, in particular, had a beneficial effect in the way the FT leader sets out, based on collaboration and a virtual circle of best practice, as well perhaps as making the most of London’s undoubted educationalist talent pool. After all, even children arriving from other English regions after the age of 11 seem to end up doing better than their peers who stayed in the regions.
But, given what we know from the statistics, there must also be other causes – something specific about London itself, not just its schools, which has driven up achievement so much more there in the last 10 years, compared with other regions.
This other something is, I suspect, immigration. As I set out in some detail here and here, there is already really quite compelling evidence to suggest the cognitive and social advantages of emergent bilingualism and biculturalism has been powerful enough to overcome the economic disadvantages suffered by many of them. This particularity about the shift in the type of children educated in London in the last decade will, I suspect, turn out to have been a more powerful cause of improved educational achievement than anything that the schools themselves have done. There’s a PhD or two waiting to be done in the field.
Such PhD findings are likely to be very unpopular with government (of any colour, as it stands), who will be more than happy to stick with the convenient, but wrong, assumption, that improving educational achievement is just a matter of improving schools (and outright governmental corruption currently flows from that assumption).
Nevertheless, it’s important that pro-immigrations keep on making the case for diversity, not just on the basis that it creates a better educated workforce, but because well-educated diversity flows creates a more prosperous, productive country as a whole. As Alesine et al. (2013) find (h/t Chris Dillow) from their extensive research into the economic effects of birthplace diversity*, there is:
a positive and robust correlation between birthplace diversity and productivity. This association is particularly strong for the diversity of immigrants, especially for skilled immigrants in richer countries. Expanding the diversity of skilled immigration by one standard deviation (e.g., from Iran to Ireland, or Ireland to US) increases long-run real income by a factor of 1.2 to 1.5. These results hold for OLS and 2SLS estimators in a dataset of 93 countries and are robust to a wide range of alternative speci.cations. We interpret these findings as suggestive of production function effects of diversity. These effects can theoretically arise though complementarities in skills, cognitive abilities or problem solving capabilities that emerge from the combination of workers with diverse origins in a joint production task. Such positive production function effects have been uncovered in a number of recent empirical and experimental studies at the team and .rm levels, but evidence at an aggregate level had so far been limited to US cities and states. These results have potentially strong implications for the design of immigration policies (p.21).
In the short term, of course, it’s too much too expect that the life chances of people in South Yorkshire (to take one ”poorly performing” area in the FT research) will be enhanced by a new wave of productive immigration with a dynamic similar to that in London (or early 20th century New York); however desirable that may be for the open-minded, it just ain’t going to happen. Nevertheless, what it’s important for Labour policymakers to bear in mind, as they prepare to take over after Gove’s scorched earth period of misuse of office, is that further initiatives to improve education in such areas need to be developed more holistically than the FT leader above recommends.
We need to develop ways in which schools and the wider institutions of the state are able to instil in whole communities the affinity for educational achievement which currently marks out London from the rest. Some of this is, of course, related to economic opportunity – the desire to get good results in order to get that job which is actually available, but it’s also about creating a love of learning for learning’s sake amongst children, either through initiatives with parents (e.g. the creation of 21st century ‘reading rooms’ in schools or run by schools) and/or, where need be, in loco parentis.
This, of course, needs money. And lots of it. But if there’s one New Labour achievement that One Nation Labour should be keen to celebrate and build on, it’s Education, Education, Education. The FT agrees.
* The notion of birthplace diversity, as opposed to ethnic diversity, is important, because it is the very newness that creates the kind of surge of achievement we have seen in London in the last decade. As the study says (p.2):
Albeit loosely linked through immigration, ethnic and birthplace diversity are empirically (perhaps surprisingly) almost completely uncorrelated. Conceptually, ethnic and birthplace diversity also di¤er as people born in different countries are likely to have been educated in di¤erent school systems, learned di¤erent skills, and speak different languages; once gathered in a single country, .rst-generation immigrants arguably form a more diverse group than second and third-generation immigrants (or than people of di¤erent ethnicities) that grew up speaking the same language and, more often than not, learned from each other inside or outside of school: the melting pot does indeed melt!